Toward a Nonprofit Theory of Leadership and Organizational Culture

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nonprofit leadership

Nonprofit organizations are different from business and government. One would reasonably expect to manage and govern them differently. However, in the absence of a general framework for nonprofit management, third sector organizations are under persistent pressure to look like something else. On the one hand, nonprofits are advised (sometimes by “venture” philanthropists) to become more entrepreneurial and business savvy, orienting their organizations more closely to market forces. At the same time, organizations are urged to make increasing the reliability and accountability of their “outcomes” their highest priority, by controlling internal processes and structuring and orienting themselves as hierarchies.

The following statements on Leadership and Organizational Culture are excerpted from Principles & Practices for Nonprofit Excellence, a 40-page document available free at MCN’s web site. These 19 Practices are designed to set out an explicitly nonprofit set of expectations for leadership from board members, managers, and volunteers, in which these organizations gain from broad participation in important discussions and decision-making.

By engaging diverse groups of people who care about the organization’s work and the people it serves, from perspectives inside and outside the organization, nonprofits are able to mobilize support, learn from peers and respond to community concerns. Nonprofit leaders have a complex task: carrying out challenging missions with limited resources and sometimes conflicting demands in the midst of constantly evolving networks of organizational and personal relationships. Open and interactive leadership practices and organizational cultures strengthen the ability of nonprofits to interpret and adapt to opportunities in this shifting environment and to make the most effective use of the ideas and resources available in their organizations, networks, and communities.


  1. Nonprofit leaders should make clear the decision-making structures and processes of the organization and its governing body.
  2. Nonprofit leaders should devote time and attention to analyze the changing environment and steer the organization through those changes.
  3. Nonprofit leaders should actively seek to understand underlying causes of mission-related issues and use this awareness to focus organization activities.
  4. Nonprofit leaders should prioritize organizational goals and negotiate external relationships to buffer against excessive control of the organization by funding sources, government regulators, or other external influences.
  5. Nonprofit leaders should recognize and navigate the organization’s response to the sometimes competing interests of funders, clients, constituents, the board, the public, and volunteers.
  6. Nonprofit leaders should discern a sustainable business model for the organization that takes into account the organization’s size, focus, funding sources and activities.


  1. Nonprofit leaders should help the organization cope with multiple demands by focusing the organization’s attention on timely mission-relevant issues and opportunities.
  2. Leaders should advocate for their organization and its mission, championing the cause in and outside of the organization.
  3. Leaders should actively communicate how the organization’s activities produce the intended change in the community and inspire others to affect that change through fundraising, advocacy and programming.
  4. Nonprofit leaders should ensure that sufficient time and energy is invested in the organization’s communication capacity.


  1. Nonprofit leaders should continually develop the skills, knowledge and abilities of others at all levels of the organization to take on greater responsibility for carrying out the organization’s mission and engaging community members.
  2. Nonprofit leaders should create and sustain an organizational culture that best advances the nonprofit’s mission and goals.
  3. Nonprofit leaders should push the organization to make difficult and timely decisions, challenge others in the organization when necessary, and permit conflicting views to be expressed on the way to reaching resolution.
  4. Nonprofit leaders should foster a culture of information sharing and interaction between the board and others in the organization so that innovation and creativity can come from diverse parts of the organization.
  5. Nonprofit leaders should identify and implement opportunities that enhance a positive working environment.
  6. Nonprofit leaders should demonstrate the behaviors they expect of their colleagues.
  7. Nonprofit leaders should encourage their organization’s staff and board to seek out, recognize and leverage the shared and different values of diverse cultures.
  8. Nonprofit leaders should pay attention to and attend to their need for professional and personal renewal and encourage the same in others.
  9. Nonprofit leaders should allow for and encourage questions and reflections on the organization’s strategies, effectiveness and ability to change.

About Principles & Practices for Nonprofit Excellence

Over the past ten years, a growing number of associations of nonprofit organizations throughout the United States have used the Minnesota Council of Nonprofit’s Principles and Practices for Nonprofit Excellence as the basis for similar documents in their states. MCN has been pleased to give permission to adapt the Principles and Practices for Nonprofit Excellence to statewide organizations, including: Arkansas Coalition for Excellence, Colorado Nonprofit Association, Connecticut Association of Nonprofits, Illinois Donors Forum, Kentucky Nonprofit Leadership, Maine Association of Nonprofits, Michigan Nonprofit Association, Mississippi Center for Nonprofits, Nonprofit Association of the Midlands (Nebraska), North Carolina Center for Nonprofits, South Carolina Association of Nonprofit Organizations, Texas Association of Nonprofit Organizations, Utah Nonprofit Association, and Center for Community Based and Nonprofit Organizations (Texas). MCN will cooperate with these associations and others to develop and share educational tools and resources to strengthen the accountability and effectiveness of nonprofits everywhere, and is always interested in feedback and suggestions for further work in this area.

  • Charlie Brown

    This was most comprehensive.
    I will adapt a good portion of this for my updated job description.
    Thank you. I hope to read more.
    Charles Brown
    Chief Executive
    Franciscan Renewal Center
    Scottsdale, AZ

  • Amadu B Kamara

    The information given very helpful. I’m suggesting that the successful (NGO’s) should stretch their brotherly hands to start up nonprofit organizations in the poorest countries, such as, Sierra Leone. (West Africa).

  • K Brown

    Oh good grief. Did the intro to this article say that there was an absence of a framework for leadership? Please. We have Paul Connolly, Sharken-Simon and so many others who have provided very, very clear frameworks. The problem is that research organizations need to continue to come up with something fresh and new. If we are really to get on the same page, then we should not keep introducing new frameworks. Sadly, these recommendations do not address the real problem that plagues leadership in nonprofits, and that is the communication funnel embodied in the person of the executive director. There needs to be a way for staff and the board to communicate with one another in such a way another and still not undermine the Director’s authority. If not, you will get leaders who are like little gods in their own little worlds because they have total control of the information. Why can’t we see some new solutions to this problem as part of a leadership framework?